Tucked within a warren of streets in the Saúde district of Rio’s historic center, Pedra do Sal is that unique place where history meets the everyday.
Like much in Rio de Janeiro, however, Pedra do Sal’s history is a buried one. It was the workplace, home, and even graveyard for untold numbers of the roughly one million enslaved Africans who survived the arduous journey across the Atlantic and were unloaded just at the Cais do Valongo just a few hundred feet away.
The enormous granite boulder where salt, unloaded and carried by black stevedores, would get traded and collected gave the area its name, which means “salt rock” in Portuguese.
Walmir Pimentel is an educator, musician and activist who has led a roda—a round of samba musicians—at the foot of Pedra do Sal every Monday for the past ten years. He told me that the region, known as “little Africa” since the 1600s, is home to a long history and is the birthplace and breeding ground of some of Brazil’s most durable cultural inventions. It’s the place where candomblé—a syncretic, ecstatic religion—, capoeira—a flowing dance form that mimics martial arts—and samba were shaped long before they became popular worldwide.
“It was here, right where we’re standing, where the first rodas de samba were born,” he explained. “The official history says that two million slaves were unloaded nearby. The result was an effervescent growth in black culture.”
But over the past ten years, Pimentel explained, the black history inscribed in the port zone was in danger of being overwritten thanks to an ambitious building boom in the area, spurred by heavy investment ahead of the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming Olympic Games.
What had long been an informal gathering place for samba was in danger of being taken over by apartment developers—including a set of Trump Towers —which led Pimentel and a group of samba die-hards to begin their regular, formal gatherings.
“We’re here to rescue this history and preserve it for the younger generation. This roda has no owner. It belongs to you as much as it does to me, it belongs to us, the people,” said Pimentel. “And it’s not only samba that we do here, either. It’s a political roda, a pedagogical roda.”
Be it for politics, education, or a chance to ease back into the workweek, the crowds soon began filling out nearby streets.
Marcelo, a taxi driver from the Curicica neighborhood of western Rio—at least an hour’s drive away without traffic—called the Monday night roda at Pedra do Sal a “refuge” from the craziness of Mondays. “It’s the only way to wait out the traffic, have a couple of beers, relax after a hard day of work.” He looked around. “It’s an encounter of the tribes.”
He had a point. The crowd, which started at roughly 200 and filled out to at least double that, was peppered with young folks and old, black and white, tourist and local. Still, Pimentel was adamant that while outsiders are welcome, he and others will fight to ensure that the area maintains its blackness.
“There’s a strong push by the mayor’s office to whiten this area, for tourism, for real estate speculation. They want to turn this into any random place. It’s not a random place. This is a place rich with black culture. This is where black Brazilian culture began to revitalize and grow. We can’t lose that.”